Yik Yak: Harmless, Humorous, or Dangerous?

Working on a college campus has kept me in the loop with social media fads.  The students I work with have introduced me to a wide variety of apps, websites, and networks – from Snapchat and Reddit, both of which I frequent, to Fade and Tinder, both of which terrify me.

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One of the latest fads is an app called Yik Yak, a location-based app where users can share text anonymously in locations on and around college campuses.  Content that is posted is similar to a tweet, with a character limit of 200.  Once text (referred to as a “yak”) is posted, users have the option of “upping” or “downing” the post, which is to say, “liking” or “disliking” the post, and the the score (positive votes minus negative votes) is posted next to the yak.  Once a post reaches -5, it is removed, but if it reaches a high enough number of votes, it gets added to the “hall of fame,” available for all of posterity.  Otherwise, the post disappears after about 30 other yaks get posted and bump it out, into the abyss, never to be spoken of again.

Users collect “yakarma,” which is the total score of all of the posts that have ever been made.  While the students I interact with regularly brag about the amount of yakarma they have accumulated, they will never share the content of their yaks with one another (and especially not with me, which I appreciate).  These bragging rights are essentially the only tangible benefit of using Yik Yak, as it is completely anonymous.

I downloaded Yik Yak at the beginning of the academic year in September, and the content on Yik Yak ranges pretty vastly.  One of the most pressing concerns is the speed (or lack thereof) of the new campus wireless network, which comes up frequently.  Students offer public service announcements to one another, warning each other that rain is predicted so make sure to bring a jacket, or that Berkshire Dining Commons has mozzarella sticks tonight so make sure you get there early.  Many users also log on looking for love, hoping that someone will meet them at midnight outside of their residence hall.  I personally have never seen this pan out for anyone.  Many of the posts are mundane or attempts at humor to accumulate yakarma and reaching the hall of fame.

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The best part of the anonymity, for me as university staff, is that it does not occur to students that what they are saying is visible to anyone who downloads the free app, including their Residence Hall Director (me).  For example, one of the residents of Leach Hall, which I oversee, posted the following comment:

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I asked the Resident Assistants who were on duty to check out that room, and lo and behold, they were indeed “turned up,” and they were documented.

One of my favorite lapses in judgment is this one, that I came across:

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I sent a text message to my friend who happens to be the Residence Director for JQA, and she found the kitten by the end of the day and asked the residents to find it a more appropriate home than their residence hall room.

As one might imagine, the anonymity of Yik Yak can also be dangerous and highly problematic.  One psychiatrist offers his perception of it as “the most dangerous form of social media I’ve ever seen,” due to the ability of users to post slanderous words, threats against other students, racist or discriminatory comments, or threats to harm themselves, all without the ability to easily trace these words back to the perpetrator.  I have certainly seen these types of messages on there as well, though it is impossible to fully understand their impact without having identifying information attached to them.

Many universities have similar concerns about Yik Yak, as for several months, discussion posts about university responses to Yik Yak popped up almost daily in Student Affairs and Residential Life Facebook groups of which I was a member.  Some college and universities responded by banning Yik Yak, including Utica College who called for a ban in response to multiple instances of cyber bullying that were reported to administration.  To do so, the app was blocked by the college’s internet service, so it cannot be accessed from campus.  This effectively ceases use of the app, because it is location-based, meaning that only users whose GPS location is the zip code of a college campus are able to post.

Other schools have experienced dangerous threats, including the University of Central Oklahoma who were able to locate, arrest, and charge a student who posted that they wanted to “shoot up” the school.  Tracking can be done using the location data collected by the app, as well as the unique IP address from each user’s cell phone, and is done by many universities in extreme cases such as this.

Ultimately, the majority of the posts I have seen on Yik Yak have erred on the side of mundane, but that doesn’t mean that the app does not offer the potential for serious safety concerns, cyber bullying, and words that can not only hurt others but can result in serious repercussions for the posters who think that they are protected by anonymity.  Yik Yak seems like another social media fad that will eventually lose its novelty, particularly if issues of bullying and threats continue to make headlines on college campuses.  It may not be worthwhile for marketers or campus entities to really use Yik Yak as a tool, and instead focus on the customer experience and power of positive consumer words:

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